Keiko Bonk, president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, stands in one of the facility's tea ceremony rooms.

Bonk has immersed
herself in art and culture

Keiko Bonk

>> New position: President and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
>> Education: Master's degree in fine arts, Hunter College, New York City; bachelor's degree in fine arts, University of Hawaii at Manoa
>> Cultural background: Active as a shamisen (three-stringed Okinawan instrument) musician; lyricist/song writer and singer in two New York rock 'n' roll bands; artist with previous exhibits in New York, Los Angeles and various European cities
>> Other positions: Former chairwoman of the Hawaii County Council; lecturer at University of Hawaii at Hilo in arts and education; taught children in an arts program in Hilo

You're taking over as president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center at what some might consider to be a critical time. The center avoided foreclosure of its building at the start of the year with a fund-raising campaign that erased $9 million in debt. Then, in August, Susan Kodani resigned as president. What is the financial condition of the center?

Actually, the center eliminated its debt that was incurred because of the structure and the initial loans taken out for the building. The center is in a good position financially. So now I've been hired to start doing a longer-term strategic plan -- both a business plan and a programs plan. This is an exciting time for the center. We still have to be concerned with fiscal management for our operating budget and our programs budget, but we don't have to think about outstanding loans for the building. We're going to have to think of a maintenance budget, but that will be incorporated with our long-term and short-term business plan. Our overall budget is $1 million.

Do you still need to do fund-raising?

The loans are paid off, but we are now faced with some of the building repairs that were put on hold while we were trying to pay off these loans. We still need to do fund-raising to maintain our programs, to help them with their operating budget and also to have money in case of emergencies. We also would like to expand our programs. We'll look at people to be generous to give us some endowments that we can invest. We have a new board with a lot of investment knowledge.

What has changed with the center since the start of the year?

Since then, some of our board members stepped down, including the chairman, Dr. Fujio Matsuda. Colbert Matsumoto is now chairman of the board of directors. A lot of people rallied together to fund-raise and there was a big effort to see if we could relieve the debt and see if we could save the building. People came through in an emergency effort to save the center. It was a great response and it's still on its feet and it's ready to go into motion. Simultaneously, there has been a restructuring committee effort and it's been broken down to five different committees that were formed to start looking at the center in terms of governance, facilities, programs, vision, and this last one was combined, fund-raising and membership.

What is expected of you in your new position and what do you want to accomplish?

The board and myself are working together to No. 1, produce a vital institution for the community of Hawaii in terms of educating the public of the past heritage of the Japanese Americans in Hawaii. No. 2 is to spread and support diversity in our community of Hawaii and then, of course, we also want to create programs that are interesting and vital to all people interested in Japanese culture. We also want to branch out from that, and that's the part of diversifying our culture. Culture, as it's defined, is really shared understanding or shared knowledge. Most people think of culture as food and dance and those kinds of shared understanding, and that's part of it. But culture is much broader than that. And we can share, for instance, the way we see things in terms of economics and in terms of the visual arts. It's also the study of humanities. It could be health and sciences. It could be a knowledge of wellness, in terms of our well-being. It could be communication.

So how will your background impact the center?

I think everyone at the cultural center would like to see growth, and not just in terms of size or scale, but more in terms of prioritizing our vision for our programs and to start to be more of a place where we can gather people of all walks of life with different ideas to expand the definition of culture. We also have a resource center that's valuable to the community because the volunteers there answer questions related to genealogy, translate books from Japanese to English and English to Japanese, as well as working on longer-term research projects. One such project is to tell the story of the Japanese Americans that were placed in internment camps in Hawaii during World War II.

How much are you still involved with your own musical interests?

A couple weeks ago, I played the shamisen for my group Shinsei Kai at a Bonen Kai (end-of-the year celebration) at Nani Mau Gardens in Hilo. There were a lot of Oahu musicians who came to that cultural exchange between Oahu and the Big Island. I continue to write lyrical poetry and then I put it to rock 'n' roll music. I'm more formally trained in Japanese music then I am in Western music.

What about your art?

I was teaching art history at UH Hilo and teaching a children's art program as well. I stepped down from that when I made the move to Oahu. This is a full-time project. My background has all become valuable in working here because coming as an educator, I'm trained in the performing arts and visual arts, as well as someone involved in fund-raising through my community work and organizations. I've also worked in fund-raising through politics. I think it's really valuable experience that I've developed certain skills that I think the cultural center can benefit from. My interest in art, particularly history and humanities, all sort of developed simultaneously because I come from a family of educators.

Why do you think you were hired for the position?

We have a real strong board at the cultural center in terms of their business knowledge and expertise on fiscal matters. I think their step to hire me was very progressive and I think we have a board expressing to the community through my hire the need for innovation and the need for progression to expand the cultural center's programs and take it a step further. I was pleasantly surprised to be the one they chose. So I think they're sending a definite message to not just the Japanese community of Hawaii, but they want to expand to a broader community. That's good and that's healthy and it reflects where we're going as Japanese Americans.

Inside Hawaii Inc. is a conversation with a member of the Hawaii business community who has changed jobs, been elected to a board or been recognized for accomplishments. Send questions and comments to


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